Inexperienced aquarium hobbyists, escaped from fish farms and illegally introduced are just some of the various theories as to how South Florida’s exotic fishery began over the last several decades. The most likely culprit in freshwater is the former, having exotic species imported from around the globe and released into Florida’s canals once they out grew their tanks.
But, South Florida’s star attraction was neither the case as the “peacock bass” was introduced by the state in 1984, with the hopes of controlling other non-natives. It is the only known project of its kind in the world that has been successful in introducing a foreign specie to help lower or eradicate another. It has also turned into a multi-million dollar fishing industry, with gear, guides and a much shorter travel to South Florida, rather than a costly trip to the Amazon River, targeting peacocks and their close relatives.
“Peacock bass” are not related to the bass family, which are actually in the sunfish family. Peacocks are cichlids, one of 3000 worldwide and counting. They originate from South America, predominantly from the Amazon and include several sub species within. “Butterfly peacock” is a very common name referred to South Florida peacocks, which is not accurate. Florida has several; ocellaris, monoculus, phenotypes of those and popoca. The speckled peacock was introduced in ’84 as well, but they did not make it past the first year due to their much longer spawn cycles. Younger “peas” often display white flecks throughout their body, but fade away as they grow and are commonly mistaken for the speckled peacock. The differences are subtle, ranging from the length and fade of the three to four, iconic black vertical bars found on their sides, to the various black blotches. Typically starting from the cheek plate and running along the side by the pectoral fins, usually subsiding by the anal fins. The actual butterfly peacock found in South America has three, black diamond-like marks on their sides, instead of the bars.
“Peacock bass” in South Florida most likely got their name for their undeniable beauty, much like the bird.
Amongst peacocks is a vast selection of non-natives and indigenous species, ranging from small bait sized to panfish, like African jewel cichlids, bluegill, and sunfish to warmouth. Larger and usually more colored species range from spotted tilapias, albino & blue tilapias (cichlids), buttikoferi tilapias, jaguar guapote, Mayan cichlids, midas cichlids, and tiger oscars. Throw in some bowfin, gar, grass carp, largemouth bass, freshwater jack crevelle, freshwater snook and tarpon, which have been locked in by levees.
Areas with slightly higher salinity may have big mouth sleepers, Spanish mojarras, needlefish or mullet as well. Sometimes snappers can be found with redfish or black drum, swimming with largemouth bass in more fresh to brackish waters. And that’s just in Miami-Dade. Just north in Broward County, you can target bull’s-eye snakeheads, clown knifefish, white/black crappie, striper hybrids along with some of the already mentioned. I’m sure I left out a few, but definitely something for everyone.
One of the most fun and hardest hitting is the peacock, which is probably one of the most photogenic as well. The Florida State Record is just over nine pounds. The World Record held in Brazil is just under thirty pounds, though a different and much larger species of peacock. Hardcore anglers have posted to social medias and forums, bragging of peas in the double digits over the years, which is possible, especially the further south you go. Until recent years, a State Record required killing the fish and the gathering of detailed information was required. Now with recent programs promoting catch and release, with all kinds of rewards, prizes, tackle, gear and even boats have been won. It is just a matter of time before a new State Record will be official.
“Peas” can be caught year round so long as the cold fronts stay mild, which has been the case for the last several years. Being a tropical fish, they love the warm climate. They can be caught in cold fronts in the lower forties, but they become very lethargic and out of character. Spring to summer is their main spawning time but with the mild winters. They can be seen spawning on nests or with fry, which should be left alone with such a short spawn cycle and more importantly, a much higher surviving ratio to adulthood and almost zero challenge. In 2010, Florida was hit with one of the coldest winters in over a hundred years, cold air from the north blasted for over three months, dropping the temperature into the lower thirties. Cichlids usually have a threshold of fifty degrees, and need to seek deeper waters over long periods, especially with dropping temperatures. This is when size really matters. Larger fish display more aggression and throw their weight around when it comes to self-preservation or natural selection.
Freshwater outfits can be used to target peacocks, but buy a quality reel because they will have you back at the tackle shop telling a story about how that one got away. Seven foot, light to medium light action, inshore rods up to 15-17# line rating with a small, saltwater grade spinning reel, spooled with ten pound braid is a sure way to not only have fun but also test your skills. Local live bait or store-bought shiners can be a winning ticket, especially when they are finicky. But, a collection of lures from hard body to your favorite soft plastics can be used. Hard body, suspending twitch baits are one of my favorites for their erratic action, often yielding a prize on the stall. Top water plugs are too much fun during hotter temps, and for a more delicate approach. A properly presented fly with the right strip rate can seal the deal.
“Peas” are an amazing game fish, with fancy acrobatics and apparently make a decent meal. Locals of South America dine on the brightly colored fish, as do Hawaiians and several Asian countries. It’s hard to crave any freshwater fish when I am surrounded by a buffet from the Atlantic and Gulf waters. You also run the chance of slightly higher levels of mercury when ingesting freshwater fish, among the endless list of chemicals from run-off, residents and construction. The list goes on but the fishery is where it’s at, practicing a strictly catch and release method for my freshwater guides. Florida recently implemented a bag limit of two per person, per day for “peacock bass”. One of which can be over 17-inches. Forward progress in a highly populated city, everyone is hungry and poaching and over fishing have been huge problems for decades.
Miami-Dade and South Florida is home to a diverse collection of people from around the world, with it comes their cultures and beliefs. The fishing is not much different, never knowing what you’ll come across, and that’s just in freshwater. One of the weirdest things I ever caught was an Asian swamp eel, hanging out with friends during one summer, catching catfish. Among the variety of non-natives, some more detrimental than others, I see peacocks becoming one of the State’s leading species to target in freshwater, rivaling the ever popular Florida largemouth bass, with the bull’s-eye snakehead not far behind. Bass will always be around as they can be found nearly all over the planet. Among hardcore anglers and professionals alike, we all seem to agree that this may be the future fishery for South Florida. They co-exist just fine and are here to stay it seems. Only time will tell, it always does. For now, so long as things are in some balance, the ecosystem should be fine, especially when freshwater is sent down from Lake Okeechobee, restoring the natural flow of freshwater south into Everglades National Park.
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Urban Freshwater Guide